I responded to last week's news about a new pre-order-"exclusive" yak-related mission for Far Cry 4 with a snort. Was this a joke? Was this what gamers are supposed to get excited about these days? So many questions.
— FarCryGame (@FarCrygame) October 31, 2014
It's not a joke. And maybe it's not even a big deal. Or maybe it's 2014 pre-order culture in a nutshell.
Here's the deal.
It's three weeks before the release of a heavily-hyped game, in this case, a himalayan first-person shooter. The gamehas a decent chance of being good (quality franchise, top dev team, impressive trailers, favourable previews). So, game's publisher decided to sweeten the pre-order offers for the game. The sweetener is a mission called the Yak Farm.
The Ubisoft blog described the mission by first referencing the game's main villain:
Pagan Min is about to attack a yak farmer who's in possession of weapons for the rebel forces. It's up to you to defend the farm and the much-needed weapons.
There had already been other special offers, announced back in the spring. If you pre-ordered the game, you'd get a "Limited Edition" version of the game that got access to a trio of missions involving a character named Hurk:
That's fine, I guess? Some people hate pre-order downloadable content bonuses, and I get that, but Ubisoft often sells all of their pre-order perks at a later date. So if you want to play it, you can. Arguably you shouldn't have to pay extra, but who knows if this Hurk stuff is any good or if the game feels like it is worth its price tag without it.
What stood out to me about the Hurk offering was that it was part of the now-common practice of pre-order bonuses being announced as soon as the game is announced.
What stood out to me about the Yak Farm announcement last week was that it both felt novel for gaming and all too typical of someone trying to close a sale. But wait, there's more!
Really? Should I be worrying about this game now? Worrying that Ubisoft is acting like they need to do more to convince people that it's cool? Or are they doing this because it is a crowded season and they legit need to help the game out to get it on the radars of people distracted by the impending releases of Dragon Age, new-gen GTA V and, right, Ubisoft's two new Assassin's Creed games. Maybe they need the Yak Farm bump after all.
People often wonder how DLC is made and whether parts of a game are held out from the basic release just to sell them as add-ons. I was thinking about this in terms of the Yak Farm and chuckling to myself some that, yeah, I was going to have to ask Ubisoft public relations whether a mission about yaks was intentionally withheld from Far Cry 4.
I asked, of course. A Ubi rep told me that the Yak Farm mission was, in fact, always planned as a bonus. In Europe it was offered as a bonus for ordering Far Cry 4 through the retailer GAME. (The game has other retailer-specific offers; buying it through GameStop gets you a special "driller machine gun.") The change, it seems, is that Ubisoft will now let people get the mission if they pre-order. Here's the company line: "We are continually looking to develop compelling additional content as a way of rewarding our fans for their early commitment to a game. Yak Farm started off as a retailer-specific pre-order bonus that we've been able to roll out globally."
This is all a little weird, if not terrible, right? It's strange thinking about how a game might be chopped up, with bits of it parcelled to various retailers or tethered to specific purchasing approaches like pre-ordering. What's it like to be the people making the gun that is going to maybe sway the GameStop customer? Or the people designing the yak mission that might, at the last minute, get a few more people to pre-order? And how do the yaks feel about all this?
What does it do to the game, if anything, to get it chipped away like this, with a Yak Farm offered for this purpose and a machete reserved for that? Or is that the wrong way of looking at it? Would these little bits of Far Cry 4 exist if not for the need to have as bonus goodies for these retailers and pre-ordering practices? If, say, GameStop wants to fund the development of a bonus level that would otherwise not be made — not that that's what happened here — maybe that would be a good thing? I'm not sure. But ultimately, we're talking about a Yak Farm mission, which sounds only a shade more ridiculous than talking about "horse armour."
This is gaming in 2014, where games may no longer be built to bilk you out of a quarter at a time, but they sure are still built to get you to pay in creative ways. I'm trying not to be cynical about it, but it's hard not to laugh about what this has come to.